In 2017, Saki Cato decides to attend the actor’s course at the film school of Tokyo, only to get interested in the process of directing and making a film. Now, some years later, she presents her first feature film, In The Distance, a debut that won the much coveted Audience Award at the 2021 PIA Film Festival.
One day, the daily rhythm of Ako Shiino (Saki Cato) is disturbed when Tadokoro (Keita Kamaguchi), a real estate agent, rings the doorbell. Quite nervous, he starts rambling about he complaints he has received by some neighbours about the accordion music upstairs.
She calls her housemate San (Haruka Toyoshima) to talk with Tadokoro and resolve the conflict. Surprisingly, they hit it off, talking about music until night falls. The next day, Ako finds them practicing music together – Tadokoro on the Ocarina and San on the triangle. Not much later, she finds herself drumming together with them.
The next evening, Ako visits Tomoe (Akemi Kanda). During dinner, a man starts ringing the bell and knocking the door. It is Shimizu (Kai Takaha), the younger guy Tomoe wants to break up with.
In The Distance is a slice-of-life narrative with a surprising but fitting fantastical touch. As Cato’s narrative depicts the mundane rhythm of life, it is not surprising that her narrative is not that thematically rich.
Yet, as Cato’s narrative is structured around the fabric of conversations, the theme of In The Distance needs to be read at the level of the signifier. Doing so, one can easily discern that Cato’s narrative is all about the importance of establishing bonds based on subjective difference rather than on ‘faking’ sameness at the level of the ego.
Cato, in fact, shows that if anything positive can come from the corona lockdown, it is a renewed respect for subjective difference. To stage her message, she elegantly traces how such lockdown impacts people differently. Itsuko, another roommate of Ako, finds herself stuck in another country due to the suddenly imposed travel restrictions. Ako, who is an amateur photographer, feels forced to waste away her time by cleaning the house and fossicking for gemstones as the corona virus that sweeps the land has radically decreased her assignments. San, for that matter, has her part-time job, but, at home, she indulges in making music to idle her free time away.
What helps Cato to deliver her message in a pleasant and effective way are the naturally-flowing conversations, as characterized by hesitations, pauses and misunderstandings. In other words, she stages speech-interactions as they are, as things that quite often do not go smoothly, as imaginary moments in which any friction is, if possible, is quickly smoothed over, or as explosions of shared pleasure. Yet, frictions, as the narrative beautifully shows, can also explode into verbal conflicts, conflicts that rattle the frail imaginary harmony by more subjectively charged enunciations. Yet, sometimes such explosion is necessary to reach a different kind of understanding – an understanding of the other’s Otherness.
One reason for problems that persist at the level of speech is given in the scene where Tomoe tries to break up with Shimizu. Tomoe and Shimizu’s enunciations become opaque for Ako, because their interactions are ‘tainted’ by their own invented metaphors, metaphors that facilitate their own relational speech and aim to strengthen their romantic bond, (Narra-note 1).
The composition of In The Distance offers a concatenation of static shots with some shaky and fluid dynamic shots thrown into the mix (Cine-note 1). While the use of dynamic shots seems, at first, merely for variety’s sake, the shakiness of such shots heightens the naturalism of the narrative, reverberating the fact that this fictional narrative in grounded in the reality of the covid-pandemic.
Cato is not afraid to refrain from using cuts, creating some pleasant long takes whose visual rhythm is dictated by the character-in-focus – by their acts or their signifiers. In some cases, this rhythm is emphasized by the light-hearted musical accompaniment, e.g. the diegetic pieces of accordion music. On the other hand, Cato also thoughtfully applies the cut, creating elegant pun-like effects that do not fail to put a smile on the spectator’s face.
Moreover, as the character in focus often goes outside the frame in such kind of shots, Cato also allows the spectator to feel the visual context marked by her characters (e.g. the old house), thereby giving them a sense of believability, a sense of being a mundane imaginary other.
What also plays a role in emphasizing the mundanity of our characters – a mundanity that invites the spectator to find a point of resemblance to identify with, is the natural colour and lightning-design. The visual engendering of such a mundane atmosphere enables the sudden burst of the fantastical to take the spectator by surprise without derailing the slice-of-life nature of the narrative.
In the Distance is a very pleasant slice-of-life narrative that elegantly shows that bonds between subjects are that much more genuine if they are grounded in the acceptance of the other’s radical difference and not in the deceptive fantasy of being the other’s semblable. And given the fact that a sense of conflict currently pervades our societal life, Cato’s message resounds that much stronger with the spectator.
Narra-note 1: While Ako cannot but emphasize the gap between her and the couple via her speech, she eventually tries to restore the imaginary harmony of speech by delivering a metaphor of her own. Yet, as her metaphor is grounded in her own subjective logic, she delivers an enunciation that the couple cannot understand – again, an awkward missed encounter.
Cine-note 1: As the narrative unfolds, moments of fluid dynamism are increasingly used in the composition.